By Ian Gilmour
EAST LANSING, Mich. — After underperforming for the entirety of the first third of the season, No. 20 Michigan State’s woes continued and their problems caught up with them as they fell to the Northwestern, 29-19. While fourth-quarter troubles were not necessarily the issue this week, execution on both sides of the ball as well as play calling was the demise of the Spartans. Coaches and fans alike are searching for answers about how this team can take steps in the right direction.
The first quarter seemed to be a mirror image of the previous week’s performance against Central Michigan. The opening drives were once again dreadful, with the offense struggling to pick up yards, and ending up in punts on both occasions. Connor Heyward got the nod to start again at running back, as LJ Scott did not play for the third week in a row. Some questioned the play calling of offensive coordinator Dave Warner.
“We have good players on our offense and we’re not playing up to our potential,” said Warner, “That falls back on me.”
The Spartans got a bit of a kick start later in the first quarter when Khari Willis picked off Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson, who made his 44th straight start for the Wildcats on Saturday. Brian Lewerke and his offense were set up with great field position, starting their drive at the Northwestern 39-yard line. They picked up 29 yards, but couldn’t make anything happen in the end zone and settled for a 27-yard Matt Coghlin field goal.
The Wildcats responded immediately, capitalizing on busted coverage that left Kyric McGowan wide open to saunter into the end zone for a 77-yard touchdown reception. The Spartans continued to struggle on the offensive side of the ball, going three-and-out on the ensuing drive, as well as setting up Northwestern at midfield.
Northwestern continued their momentum, scoring a touchdown on the second possession in a row. JJ Jefferson hauled in a 34-yard touchdown reception against Tre Person. The MSU defense amped up the pressure on Thorson and gave up no points the rest of the first half.
The Spartan offense began to move the ball slightly better near the end of the half, gaining 60 yards on a 10-play drive. Once again, they sputtered as they neared the end zone and settled for a field goal from 25 yards. MSU headed into the half down 14-6, hoping to spring to life in the second half.
“Our inability to run the football consistently enters into all of this,” Dantonio said,”We’ve got some guys banged up…but a game like this is disappointing. I’m sure we’ll look at it very closely and make some decisions based on those things.”
The MSU defense shifted into a higher gear as the second half began. They forced a quick Northwestern punt before earning their first touchdown of the day. It came on a 48 yard run from none other than wide receiver Felton Davis off of a double reverse. Davis went for 146 all-purpose yards on the day, 50 coming on the ground and 96 through the air. That brought the score to 14-12 after the 2-point conversion failed.
On the next defensive possession, Mike Panasiuk had one of the oddest interceptions of the year so far, as the ball bounced off a receiver’s facemask and landed in Panasiuk’s hands. The Spartan offense continued their high-octane play, scoring another touchdown after Panasiuk’s interception. This time they went on a short 6-play drive that ended in a 3-yard pass to Davis. This was Davis’ fourth career game with multiple touchdowns, with the last time he did it coming against Northwestern last year.
Lewerke finished 31-51 for 329 yards and one touchdown, but his interception to close the first half signified the type of day MSU had on offense.
This momentum that MSU had gained through their offensive success was quickly handed to Northwestern after an unsportsmanlike penalty against Naquan Jones that turned the tide of the game. The 15-yard penalty gave the Wildcats added inspiration, as they picked up two big third down conversions before Thorson, who finished the day with 373 yards in the air with three touchdowns and two interceptions, eventually found Cameron Green for his first touchdown reception of the day. The Wildcats converted their 2-point conversion to retake the lead 22-19.
If losing momentum wasn’t already enough for the Spartan offense, they had a big first down pick-up overturned due to an illegal forward pass on Lewerke’s pitch to Weston Bridges, a drive which ended in a punt. The effect of the offensive struggles resurfacing seeped into the defense; Justin Layne got burned three times on the same drive. Northwestern was able to move the ball downfield and convert on a fourth down and six, but the drive ended with kicker Charlie Kuhbander pushing a 33-yard field goal wide right, giving new life to MSU.
That new life did not last very long. After a tackle for loss, a sack of Lewerke, and a holding call, the Spartans were suddenly faced with a 3rd-and-25 from inside their own 10-yard line. They punted away and Northwestern brought the ball back to the 34 of MSU. The Wildcats couldn’t get anything going on offense either, but pinned the Spartans at their own two-yard line with four minutes left in regulation.
Lewerke gave himself some breathing room, picking up nine yards on first down, but the Spartan’s could not pick up that last yard in three attempts and turned it over to the Wildcats. This time, Northwestern punched it into the end zone, pulling away to make the score 29-19, where it would stay for the remainder of the contest. MSU travels to Penn State next week to take on a sharp Trace McSorley-led team who will be coming off a bye.